Study Guide

Twelve Angry Men

by Reginald Rose

Twelve Angry Men Essay - Critical Essays

Criticism

Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a PhD in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he discusses the play in the context of jury behavior, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and the inadequacy of defense counsel in many capital cases in the United States.

There must be many playgoers or moviegoers who come away from a performance or showing of Twelve Angry Men filled with images of themselves acting as the heroic Juror Eight. They, too, when their time came, would be calm and rational in the jury room and motivated only by a desire for justice, and they would gradually, through their integrity and persistence, persuade the other eleven jurors to adopt their viewpoint. It is, of course, natural for the audience to identify with the hero, but people may not realize that this aspect of Twelve Angry Men, in which one juror persuades eleven others to change their positions, is fiction, not reality. The truth is that in real life, no one would be able to act out the admirable role of Henry Fonda (or Jack Lemmon, who played Juror Eight in the 1997 remake of the movie).

The dynamics of group behavior simply do not work that way. In the 1950s, a study of 255 trials by the Chicago Jury Project turned up no examples of such an occurrence. The study, in which microphones were placed in the jury room to record deliberations, found that 30 percent of cases were decided, either for conviction or acquittal, on the first ballot. In 95 percent of cases, the majority on the first ballot persuaded the minority to their point of view. In other words, the way a jury first casts its vote preferences is the best predictor of the final verdict. This conclusion has been confirmed by much research in jury behavior over the past half-century. So if Twelve Angry Men had been true to life, the defendant would almost certainly have been convicted. In group situations such as jury deliberations, there is simply too much pressure on a lone individual to conform to the view of the majority. The Chicago Jury Project showed that in the 5 percent of cases in which the original minority prevailed, there were always three or four jurors who held their minority views from the start of deliberations. (The results of the Chicago Jury Project are reported in "Twelve Angry Men Presents an Idealized View of the Jury System," by David Burnell Smith.)

In cases where one juror persists in maintaining his or her view against the majority, the result will be a hung jury, although research on juries suggests that hung juries are more common when there is a sizable minority rather than a minority of one. There is also a body of opinion within the legal profession that indicates that in cases where a lone juror opposes the majority, the holdout is unlikely to resemble Juror Eight in Twelve Angry Men, who is devoted to justice and acts with integrity. In fact, such a juror is more likely to be the opposite, a stubborn and antisocial person who, for some reason, feels driven to oppose the majority, sticking to his or her opinion when there is no evidence to support it. In a review of the play in the Michigan Law Review, Phoebe C. Ellsworth summarizes this view:

The juror who opposes the majority is seen as essentially unreasonable…. The majority jurors, on the other hand, are seen as reasonable, willing to spend time sifting through the issues and listening carefully to the arguments of the minority even if the initial verdict is 11-1 and they have enough votes to declare a verdict.

If this aspect of Twelve Angry Men is more fiction than truth, the play does raise other issues that are as relevant for the criminal justice system today as they were in the 1950s. The most important of them is the nature of eyewitness testimony. At first, the jurors in Twelve Angry Men, with one exception, accept the eyewitness testimony at the trial at face value. This testimony is crucial to the case for the prosecution, and the jurors do not think to question the old man's claim that he saw the murdered man's son fleeing or the testimony of the woman across the street, who said that she actually saw the murder being committed. The jurors repeatedly refer to this testimony as the "facts" of the case, and near the end of the...

(The entire section is 1773 words.)

Thomas J. Harris

In the following essay, Harris provides an overview of the plot and characters in the film version of Twelve Angry Men, taking issue with Juror 8's omniscience and some of the story's simplistic philosophies, but praising it as "exhilarating drama."

An Orion/Nova Production, released through United Artists, 1957. Coproducers: Henry Fonda and Reginald Rose. Director: Sidney Lumet. Story and Screenplay: Reginald Rose. Director of Photography: Boris Kaufman, A.S.C. Editor: Carl Lerner. Art Director: Robert Markell. Music: Kenyon Hopkins. Assistant Producer: George Justin. Assistant Director: Donald Kranze. Operative Cameraman: Saul Midwall. Sound: James A. Gleason. Script Supervisor: Faith Elliott. Makeup: Herman Buchman. Black-and-white. Running time: 96 minutes.

Cast: Henry Fonda (Juror 8), Lee J. Cobb (Juror 3), Ed Begley (Juror 10), E. G. Marshall (Juror 4), Jack Warden (Juror 7), Martin Balsam (Juror 1), John Fiedler (Juror 2), Jack Klugman (Juror 5), Joseph Sweeney (Juror 9), Edward Binns (Juror 6), George Voskovec (Juror 11), Robert Webber (Juror 12), Rudy Bond (Judge), James A. Kelly (Guard), Bill Nelson (Court Clerk), John Savoca (Defendant).

It is convenient that the first chapter of this book on courtroom cinema should center on the most pivotal aspect of a trial—the jury: with a thorough understanding of its intricacies, the reader will be able to appreciate better the statements made by the writers and directors of the films to come regarding the reliability of the judicial system in general.

Strangely enough, as of 1957 the subject of the jury had only received one serious treatment in all of world cinema—by French writer-director Andre Cayette in his 1950 film Justice est Faite (Let Justice Be Done), which explored the extent to which the personal lives of the jury members in a mercy killing affected their verdict. Its main point was that the attainment of absolute impartiality is impossible in a jury situation, to which people unavoidably carry with them deep-seated prejudices and convictions.

Some three years after the release of the Cayette film in France, a young American TV writer named Reginald Rose found himself confronting precisely the same dilemmas that had plagued Cayette's characters when he was asked to serve on a New York jury. Rose was so affected by his experience that he fashioned a teleplay from it. When 12 Angry Men, as it was called, aired in early 1954, it proved an immediate critical and commercial hit—its potency of theme appearing all the more credible due to its basis on actual events.

Two years later, in 1956, Rose was asked by Henry Fonda, who had seen the TV production of 12 Angry Men and who was looking for a commercial property over which he could serve as producer as well as a starring vehicle for himself, to expand his teleplay to feature length. This practice had become fairly common during the 1950s, what with the number of original story ideas for motion pictures steadily declining. Producers had begun to turn to their greatest rival, television, for new material. Paddy Chayefsky's TV plays Marty and The Bachelor Party were both transferred to the screen in 1955 and 1957, respectively, by their original director, Delbert Mann. Since television was primarily a writer's (although to a great extent an actor's) medium, it was wisely decided that the screen adaptations of these teleplays would rely heavily on dialogue, in addition to the other fundamentals of television: "a narrative style based on medium close-ups … a highly mobile camera enclosed within a limited space and the intimate quality of … situations."

These films were also made at low costs, because they utilized television crews instead of motion picture crews (Alfred Hitchcock was to discover just how cheaply a feature film could be made in 1960 when, using the crew from his TV show, he produced and directed Psycho, his top-grossing film of all time, for a mere $800,000).

The man chosen to direct the screen version of 12 Angry Men was Sidney Lumet, who was still a novice to movies (hard to believe from today's stand-point) but who was well-experienced in TV, having directed episodes for such popular series as You Are There, Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre, and Studio One. In addition, most of the acting ensemble was drawn from among the ranks of TV performers: E. G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Edward Binns, John Fiedler, Martin Balsam, among others.

12 Angry Men opens on a steamy summer afternoon in a courtroom inside Manhattan's Court of General Sessions. A judge is wearily grumping his charge to an equally dog-tired and heat-soaked jury: first-degree manslaughter with a death penalty mandatory upon a guilty verdict. However, he reminds them, to send the defendant (a slum boy) to the chair their verdict of guilty must be unanimous; if there exists in any juror's mind a reasonable doubt as to the guilt or innocence of the accused, a vote of not guilty must be entered. As the jury remove themselves from the box, the viewer is shown a lingering close-up of the frightened boy. Kenyon Hopkins' grim, sympathetic theme (which will recur each time a life-or-death situation is faced) continues until the credits fade as the jury—and the audience—settle themselves in that sweltering broom closet for the next hour and a half. Already Rose has established the contrast between the slum kid of a minority race and the white, middle-class males who have been selected to determine his fate. We will soon discover that the defendant in the case is not only the boy on trial but also the jury and, in a broader sense, the judicial system itself.

Once inside the jury room, the men are introduced to the viewer as they talk among themselves about how "open-and-shut" the case against the boy seems. Assuming the airs of the intelligent, respectable citizens they presume themselves to be, they never for a moment doubt the validity of their convictions, but instead speak of how "exciting" the trial was or of the stifling atmosphere of the room (they are unable to get the fan to work) or of how the proceedings have rudely interrupted their daily routines (one is anxious to get to the ball park). They act as though they've seen it all before; in fact, one of them later says to Henry Fonda, who casts the only vote for not-guilty, "You couldn't change my mind if you talked for a hundred years." However, by the end of the film all eleven of them will have been persuaded by Fonda to open their minds to the possibility of the existence of a reasonable doubt in the case.

Juror 1 (Martin Balsam) is chosen to be the foreman. He is a high-school gym teacher, about 30, somewhat dumb and weak-willed, and extremely sensitive—when someone objects to one of his decisions, he says, "All right, then do it yourself. See how you like being in charge." His opinions will be overlooked while the other eleven take over. In short, he is a foreman by name only.

Juror 2 (John Fiedler) is a wimpy bank teller of about 35. He (like some of the others) is used to having decisions made for him and enjoys going along with the majority so he'll look good and won't have to stand up for himself. Whatever views he has are usually silenced by the more aggressive types in the group. However, he does make an effort to maintain the level of interpersonal contact among the men when arguments ensue by offering cough drops.

Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) is a husky, loud-mouthed, domineering bully who runs a messenger service. He states in the beginning that he has no personal feelings about the case, but we eventually learn that his own teenaged son has deserted him and for that reason he is taking out his anger on the defendant. His blind desire to side with anyone who is ready to convict the boy allows Fonda and the others on his side to come up with new evidence to support the theory that there exists a reasonable doubt concerning the boy's guilt.

Juror 4 (E. G. Marshall), the stockbroker, is a cold-blooded (so much so that he says he never sweats) rationalist who treats the whole case as if it were a detective puzzle and not a question of whether a human being is going to live or die. "Studies confirm that slum kids are potential criminals," he declares. He is conceited and stuffy and does not hesitate to tell the others what he thinks of them whenever the opportunity arises. He is, however, obviously a good producer of information and has excellent recall, and is helpful in that respect at least.

Juror 5 (Jack Klugman) is an insecure victim of a slum upbringing. He is not a mean man, but would vote in favor of the boy's guilt simply because discussing the details of a case with many parallels to his own childhood is too much for his conscience to bear. However, once he has come to grips with his past, he is eager to assist Fonda and the others in reevaluating the case against the boy.

Juror 6 (Edward Binns) is a working-class "Joe" more inclined toward using his hands than his brains. "I'm not used to supposing," he tells Fonda. "My boss does that for me." He provides a facilitation function in the group—that is, he tries to make things go smoothly—as when he badgers the bully for silencing Juror 9, the old man: "You say stuff like that to him again, and I'll lay you out."

Juror 7's (Jack Warden) only desire is to get out of his seat in the jury room and into one at the ball park. In fact, he is so completely obsessed with baseball that he makes unconscious references to it in virtually everything he says; he calls Juror 5 "Baltimore" because of his attachment to the Orioles; he tells the foreman to "just stand there and pitch" when he says something irritating; he recites the ratio of guilty to not-guilty votes as if it were a player's hit-and-miss record. He is perhaps the most alarming figure in the whole group because he has absolutely no concern for the defendant's welfare. He preoccupies himself with cracking jokes and performing stupid acts like throwing paper balls at the fan. When Fonda finally secures a majority of not-guilty votes, he switches his vote to not-guilty simply to facilitate the establishment of a unanimous verdict; he has no convictions either way. That he appears amusing on the surface seems all the more appalling when one reflects upon the seriousness of the situation which he's making light of.

Juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney), the old man, needs moral support, for he has an inferiority complex. Fortunately, Fonda, the working man, and some of the others manage to see to it that he gets the floor once in a while despite the dominance of the loudmouths in the group. In spite of his years, however, he is extremely perceptive, and some of his observations—unseen by any of the others—result in altering the opinions of a few of the more stubborn among the men.

Juror 10 (Ed Begley) is a garage owner who is absolutely seething with racial prejudice. "They're all the same—can't trust any of 'em—know what I mean?" is his recurrent statement with regard to the boy's ethnic background. He is nasty and quick to accuse (when Fonda is the only one to vote not-guilty at the beginning, he immediately snickers, "Boyoboy, there's always one"). Although he acts tough, it becomes increasingly clear that his rantings and ravings last only as long as there are supporters to urge him on.

Juror 11 (George Voskovec), a German-American, is an immigrant watchmaker who initially votes guilty simply because his reverence for the principles of American justice has blinded him into believing that the system is infallible: the boy seems guilty, therefore he must be. He is somewhat arrogant but is rightfully angered at the baseball fan's indifference and the bully's rudeness. By standing up for his beliefs he gives direction to the group.

Juror 12 (Robert Webber) is an ad man accustomed to making decisions for appearance's sake. He has no deep-seated convictions regarding the guilt or innocence of the boy and as a result has difficulty making up his mind when his opinion is needed to break a tie vote.

From an examination of these men it becomes clear that Rose has chosen a pretty fair cross-section of society to fill his jury. After they are certain that they've given the case a thorough evaluation (they've talked for all of five minutes), one calls to the man (Juror 8, Henry Fonda) who has been standing alone by the window. Fonda has been thinking the case over in his mind, not worrying about his own problems. The contrast between him and his fellow jurors is firmly established when a vote is taken and he is the only one who raises his hand for not-guilty. After the others have somewhat tempered their initial hostility, they agree to explain to him why they think he should change his mind. It must be pointed out that he has not voted not-guilty because he is sure the boy is innocent, but because there exists in his mind a reasonable doubt as to guilt. The law states that this is all that is necessary for acquittal.

After a once-around-the-table, it becomes obvious that no one has given the case much thought. "I just think he's guilty … the evidence all seemed to point in that direction," are the empty generalizations spouted by these eleven men who are prepared to send a boy to the chair without even a second thought.

Since it is evident that they would rather ignore Fonda and wait for him to "come to his senses" than try to help him see their point of view, Fonda realizes that it is up to him to convince them that there is room for reasonable doubt. He has his work cut out for him, though, for he must contend with the hostility of the others in the group—the garage mechanic in particular—who are growing more and more impatient.

It is already clear to the viewer that Fonda is the only man present who is not indifferent and who has not allowed personal prejudice to obscure his perception of the case. He is also apparently the only one with a lucid understanding of the judicial process—and the one with the most common sense. He has to remind the bank teller that the burden of proof is on the prosecution, not the defense. He cleverly makes the ad man contradict his belief that witnesses who say things under oath cannot be wrong by getting him to admit, "This isn't an exact science."

Nevertheless, for all his effort, Fonda elicits nothing but jeers from those to whom he points out shortcomings in reasoning. Discouraged, but secretly hoping that...

(The entire section is 5970 words.)

Hollis Alpert

In the following review of the original movie version of Twelve Angry Men, Alpert asserts that the story "pins too much faith on the presence … of the open-minded man," but calls it "a tight, absorbing drama," nonetheless.

Henry Fonda has a most reassuring face. Something about the set of the jaw, the leanness of the cheeks, the moodiness of the eyes, inspires respect and confidence. The parts he has played in films and on the stage have made him close to an American symbol of the unbiased, uncorrupted man, and he is just about perfect for the role of Juror #8 in Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men. Fonda, in this study of a jury's intimate deliberations, must stand alone, at first, against eleven...

(The entire section is 702 words.)